Reading, Writing, and Rehab

By Beth Schwartzapfel | Boston Magazine |

IT’S TUESDAY AFTERNOON just before fourth period, and groups of teenagers are smoking cigarettes outside their high school. Standing among them is Billy, who has the smooth cheeks and soft-edged features of a typical 16-year-old. But there’s also a hardness to him. His hazel eyes are impassive. His dark hair is buzzed close to his head, and he has a wispy goatee and his last name tattooed in black script on his forearm.

When Billy was 14, his father, Bill Sr., went to jail on drug-related charges, and the family lost their house and split up. Billy stayed with his mother in a homeless shelter and a series of hotels, each of them trying to hide their drug use from the other. Eventually they stopped pretending and started hustling together to come up with the money for their $200-per-day heroin habit.

At most schools, an adolescent heroin junkie would be a pariah, and probably even be expelled or arrested. But Billy goes to Northshore Recovery High in Beverly, one of three state-funded schools attended exclusively by teenage drug and alcohol addicts. And according to his teachers and principal, he’s been thriving — it’s the first time he’s consistently shown up for school since seventh grade. Having completed a 90-day residential treatment program for his heroin use, he’s now living with his father, who was recently released from jail, and his uncle. (His mother also sought treatment, but eventually relapsed and is now locked up.) He met his girlfriend, Lexi, at the school, and the two of them help each other stay sober. Billy and his father both agree that if he weren’t at Northshore, he wouldn’t be in school at all.

It may sound like trouble — a bunch of teen addicts spending their days together in an alternative school — but Harvard psychologist John Kelly, the associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, says a recovery high school can “provide a safe social context,” which helps teenagers resist temptations.

Perhaps that’s so, but resisting temptation can apparently mean different things to different people. Billy may be attending a school specially designed to help him overcome his drug addiction, but he and Lexi openly admit that they regularly smoke pot. In fact, Billy keeps failing the drug tests that are required at the school. After each positive test, he sits down with his principal and the school’s recovery counselor, and they call in his father or uncle for a group discussion on how to help him stay sober. The school’s approach has been to focus on the major concern — heroin — first. Billy says the message he’s been given is “We’re not really worried about you failing for weed. Opiates are the problem right now.”

Most recovery schools across the country require students to commit to sobriety in order to enroll. But Northshore director Michelle Lipinski, who functions essentially as the principal, takes a much different approach. She believes that even if students are using, her school provides them with a safe environment to work through the recovery process. If they’re struggling with drug use, she reasons, better they do so at Northshore than on the streets. “These are the kids who will eventually be the dropouts of our society, not just our schools, if we don’t do something for them,” she says. “Sobriety isn’t how I measure success.”

occupies the ground floor of an old public school in Beverly, and the hallways are filled with the familiar sound of sneakers squeaking on linoleum and lockers slamming. Students curse freely and wander in and out of class without much reprimand. During gym, they are allowed to “take a walk” (i.e., go outside to smoke). At one point during math class, the teacher looks up from drawing sine waves on the board to discover there are only four students at their desks. “Where did everyone go?” he asks.

Photographs by Jonathan Kozowyk

  • Hendrik

    I am disgusted with Beth Schwartzapfel’s article, “Reading, Writing and Rehab.” I have worked as a consultant at the Northshore Recovery High School on and off for three years and I have been endlessly impressed with the school’s energetic, thoughtful and encouraging approach to the process of recovery for teenagers. The goals of a recovery high school are (in order of importance):
    1) Keep kids from dying
    2) Keep kids out of jail
    3) Educate (academics and life skills)
    4) Provide examples of peers for whom recovery is working
    The rock-bottom approach to recovery that is appropriate for adults simply doesn’t work for adolescents. Minors are not in control of their living environments or their finances. Children cannot escape a hostile home, addict parents or gang infested neighborhoods without strong consistent support before, during and after relapse. Every teenager and every relapse needs to be evaluated individually. Suspending a student for a dirty test can lead to beating by a parent, a relapse on a more dangerous drug, or running away. The other students need to be protected as well. I applaud the Northshore Recovery High School for trying a different, more difficult and more thoughtful…

  • Kristen

    My name is Kristen Johnston. I’m an actress who co-founded SLAM (Sobriety, Learning And Motivation), a board dedicated to creating NYC’s first Recovery High School. I have worked exhaustively for the past 5 years, trying to make this happen. Michelle Lipinski has been a true hero to us, doing everything in her power to help, in any way she can. I spent a week at Northshore Recovery HS, and I can say from first-hand experience, everything Ms. Schwartzapfel relays in her article is categorically false. Ms. Lipinski is a strong, kind, brilliant leader, the teachers all cared so deeply for reaching each kid, and there is NO QUESTION it’s saving lives. I’ve never been to a school where so many graduates come back daily to see what they can do to help out. I’m disgusted by this article. If she had spent more than a cursory afternoon there, she wouldn’t have written such an inept, damaging article. It’s the kids who will really suffer from this. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • Kendall

    When you berate someone whom takes extensive periods of time from her life to help drug addicted teenagers. This is not some fantasy world where you can wave a magic wand and every addiction you have can be cured. They are teenagers, it is obvious that they will relapse. The point is that they are on a path to their future because of these schools. When they were in public schools they were lost in the shadows, looked over. With recovery highschools they are put under a magnifying glass, and are forced to take note of their actions. I have a brother that goes to recovery high and now he is getting straight ‘A’s and steering clear of drugs and alcohol. They don’t condone substance abuse, they just make you realize there are always people like you out there that are going through similar occurrences, and give you that crutch you need to make it past your difficulties.

  • Jackie Valley

    This is truly one of the most irresponsible articles I have ever read. Clearly the author has no experience working with teens let alone teens suffering from addiction. Clearly the author has no concept of harm reduction and it’s effectiveness or it’s impact nationwide. Clearly the author has done little to no research on harm reduction programs and the preliminary evaluations, which show these programs to be “a viable and promising approach to working with highly marginalized drug users.” Clearly the author has never attended a funeral of a child who has died after leaving a traditional rehab program. I have. I have also seen kids fail at harm reduction programs – there is no one size fits all when it comes to addiction. If there was – someone would have started the program and we would eliminate the disease. I also know Michelle Lipinski personally and am appalled at the author’s disrespectful tone and commentary on a woman who has given up time, money and a good portion of her life to work with a very challenging population. I will NEVER subscribe to, purchase or reference Boston Magazine if this…

    • LBV

      In light of the article written by Ms. Schwartzapfel, I found encouragement by learning about Ms. Lipinski’s approach and attitude toward helping teens through recovery. Key comments made by Ms. Lipinski have given me hope and understanding of my own teen who is struggling with substance abuse. I am not critiquing the article, but, to those who found it damaging… i just want to say that i found it enlightening and saw Ms. Lipinski in a positive light.